Emmanuel Macron has accused the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, of lying to him over an abandoned $90bn submarine contract, in a significant escalation of tensions between Paris and Canberra.
The French president levelled the accusation in impromptu comments to Australian journalists on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome. He said he had a lot of “respect and friendship” for Australia and Australians, but that respect between nations needed to be reciprocated.
“I just say when we have respect, you have to be true and you have to behave in line and consistent with this value,” he said.
When asked whether he thought Morrison had lied to him by not revealing Australia’s secret dialogue with the UK and US over the acquisition of nuclear submarines, a dialogue that ultimately became the Aukus pact, Macron was direct in his response. “I don’t think, I know,” he said.
Morrison denied he had lied to the French president. He said he had told Macron that he had formed the view that conventional submarines would not meet Australia’s strategic interests when the two leaders met in Paris after a G7 summit this year.
He said when the two had dined together at the Élysée Palace, “at that stage we had not concluded any other arrangements with any other parties”.
Morrison said he understood Macron’s disappointment, but that he did not resile from the decision to abandon the French contract and proceed with the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with the US and UK. He said doing otherwise would have elevated French disappointment above Australia’s national interests.
Macron expressed scepticism to Australian journalists that the Aukus nuclear submarines would arrive on schedule. He noted there was an 18-month review of the feasibility of the arrangement, and quipped: “Good luck.”
Morrison said he was confident the acquisition would proceed as planned.
Under the Aukus pact, Morrison dumped a contract with France to build six diesel-powered submarines in favour of a deal with the US for eight nuclear-powered submarines. France said it had been “betrayed”, “stabbed in the back” and “deceived”.
The escalation in tensions comes before a meeting between Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, and her French counterpart designed to get the relationship back on track.
The dispute with France dominated Morrison’s trip to Rome for the G20 summit. Shortly after Morrison had arrived in Italy, Joe Biden moved to repair his own damaged personal and political relationship with Macron by acknowledging that the Aukus announcement had been a “clumsy” episode handled with a lack of grace.
Biden told Macron with television cameras present that he was “under the impression that France had been informed” about Australia’s intention to ditch the contract “long before” the Aukus pact was revealed publicly.
It was unclear whether the US president was rebuking Morrison, or his own senior staff for failing to keep him abreast of the nuances.
After Biden’s public rapprochement with Macron, Morrison doubled down on the decision to proceed with the nuclear submarines. He said his government had kept the Biden administration up to date “with the status of the conversations and discussions with the French government”.
Macron met a number of other world leaders while at the G20 summit, but he did not schedule a bilateral discussion with Morrison.
Australia’s prime minister will see Macron again at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow. Morrison was due to depart Rome for Scotland on Sunday evening.